May 07, 2024 6 min read

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    In the ever-evolving landscape of nutrition, understanding the interplay between genetics, nutrigenomics, lifestyle, and the microbiome has emerged as a somewhat confusing area for the non-science reader, especially if they also happen to be vegan. 

    Many may think it's simply a case of eliminating red meat, saturated fats, and cholesterol to live longer and healthier, but the truth is always more nuanced.

    If you are a long-time vegan, you are likely aware of the basics: get enough iron, B12, omega-3, vitamin D, zinc, and iodine from your diet where possible, and supplement the rest. 

    So, let's dig into some science without hurting our brains more than necessary!

    Genetic Variability: Unraveling Individual Predispositions

    At the core of personalized nutrition lies the intricate tapestry of genetic variability. Our unique genetic makeup plays a pivotal role in dictating how our bodies respond to dietary components, including those that are either abundant or lacking in a vegan diet

    Vegan Diet

    Genetic variations, such as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), influence enzyme activity, nutrient metabolism, and susceptibility to certain dietary deficiencies. For instance, polymorphisms in genes encoding enzymes involved in vitamin B12 metabolism, such as MTR and MTHFR, can impact vitamin B12 status in vegans. As a result, tailored interventions are required to ensure adequate nutrient intake and prevent deficiencies.

    Relating this to omega-3, some people will more readily convert plant-based alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) into the usable forms of omega-3, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), thanks to more favorable genes encoding for desaturase and elongase enzymes, such as FADS1 and FADS2, which regulate the conversion process. 

    Polymorphisms in these genes can hinder this conversion, however, and so for these people, it's more necessary to acquire EPA and DHA in the performed state directly from food or supplements. For vegans, this would be algal omega-3, and for those who eat seafood, fish, or krill, this would be omega-3.  

    Additionally, micronutrients like vitamins B6, B12, and folate further modulate this conversion pathway, highlighting the intricate interplay between genetics and nutrition in determining individual capacity to biosynthesize long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

    Another area often overlooked is vitamin A or retinol, which is only made by animals from plant-based carotenoids. Similarly to omega-3s, not everyone completes this conversion optimally. This process is governed by beta-carotene 15,15'-monooxygenase 1 (BCMO1), and polymorphisms in the BCMO1 gene can impact enzyme activity, affecting the efficiency of converting provitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene into retinol. 

    Again, dietary factors such as the presence of dietary fat and the composition of the overall diet can modulate carotenoid absorption and conversion. At the same time, micronutrient cofactors like zinc and vitamin C are essential for optimal BCMO1 activity.

    Genetic Factors in Nutrition

    For iron, nutrigenomics also plays a role, with non-heme iron as found in plants, relying on key genes such as DMT1, FPN1, and HFE to encode proteins involved in iron transport and regulation. Variations in these genes affect the efficiency of plant-sourced iron utilization. 

    Dietary factors, such as the presence of vitamin C to enhance iron absorption or digestive inhibitors like phytates, which impair mineral absorption, also play a part. As most know, plant sources of iron tend to be lower in quantity, so if one is attempting to acquire iron exclusively from plants, it's critical to take these factors into consideration. 

    Finally, let's look at vitamin D, with genetic and lifestyle factors influencing absorption from the skin in response to sunlight encompassing a range of variables. 

    Variations in genes encoding for the enzymes involved in vitamin D metabolism, such as DHCR7, CYP2R1, and CYP27B1, can impact our ability to convert sunlight into active vitamin D. 

    Additionally, lifestyle factors such as skin color, geographical location, time spent outdoors, sunscreen use, and clothing coverage also play significant roles. Darker skin pigmentation produces less vitamin D in response to sunlight, while factors like latitude, season, and time of day affect the angle of the sun and, consequently, vitamin D synthesis

    Lifestyle choices such as outdoor activities and limited sunscreen use can promote vitamin D synthesis, whereas excessive sunscreen application and indoor lifestyles hinder it. Understanding the interplay between genetic predispositions and lifestyle behaviors is crucial for optimizing vitamin D synthesis through sunlight exposure and maintaining adequate vitamin D levels to support overall health.

    We can begin to appreciate how individual genetic profiles can influence responses to nutrient absorption and utilization, thus helping us to prevent unnecessary deficiencies more actively and effectively. 

    Microbiome Dynamics: Cultivating Gut Health in the Plant-Based Realm

    Beyond genetics, the microbiome emerges as a dynamic ecosystem harboring trillions of microbial inhabitants that profoundly influence our health and well-being. 

    The composition and diversity of the gut microbiota are intimately linked to dietary patterns, with plant-based diets fostering a microbial milieu rich in fiber-fermenting bacteria associated with diverse health benefits. 

    Generally speaking, poor digestive health involving an imbalance of gut microbial composition, reduced microbial diversity, and greater numbers of pathogenic bacteria is the downstream effect of excessive antibiotic use, diets high in processed foods and low in fiber, and excessive stress. These factors combine to disrupt the delicate balance of the gut microbiota. This can lead to digestive issues like bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea, which can later compound to create more chronic health issues

    Specific interventions are essential in restoring microbial balance and enhancing gut barrier function. Helpful strategies include increasing dietary fiber intake from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and produce short-chain fatty acids that nourish the gut lining

    Probiotic supplements containing strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can help replenish beneficial bacteria, while prebiotics like inulin and oligosaccharides serve as food for these microbes. Additionally, fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi can introduce beneficial probiotic strains into the gut. 

    Nourish the Gut Lining

    Furthermore, lifestyle modifications such as stress management techniques, regular physical activity, adequate hydration, and avoiding excessive use of antibiotics can support a healthy gut microbiome and alleviate digestive discomfort.

    Future Directions: Towards Precision Plant-Based Nutrition

    Despite the myriad health benefits of vegan diets, inherent nutritional challenges necessitate a nuanced understanding of genetic and microbiome interactions to optimize nutrient intake and mitigate potential deficiencies in essential micronutrients. 

    As we venture into the era of precision nutrition, harnessing the power of genetics, nutrigenomics, and microbiome dynamics holds immense promise for advancing personalized dietary recommendations tailored to vegans' needs.

    Integrating genetic testing, microbiome analysis, and personalized dietary counseling can empower individuals to optimize their plant-based lifestyles, unlocking the full spectrum of health benefits while minimizing the risks of nutritional imbalances.

    Article References:

    1. Zittan, E., et al. “High Frequency of Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Asymptomatic Individuals Homozygous to MTHFR C677T Mutation Is Associated with Endothelial Dysfunction and Homocysteinemia.” American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, vol. 293, no. 1, July 2007, pp. H860–H865, Accessed 28 May 2022.
    2. Mihailescu, Alexandra, et al. “Docosahexaenoic Acid and Eicosapentaenoic Acid Intakes Modulate the Association of FADS2 Gene Polymorphism Rs526126 with Plasma Free Docosahexaenoic Acid Levels in Overweight Children.” Applied Sciences, vol. 11, no. 21, 21 Oct. 2021, pp. 9845–9845, Accessed 7 May 2024.
    3. Suzuki, Masako, and Meika Tomita. “Genetic Variations of Vitamin A-Absorption and Storage-Related Genes, and Their Potential Contribution to Vitamin A Deficiency Risks Among Different Ethnic Groups.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 9 861619. 28 Apr. 2022, doi:10.3389/fnut.2022.861619
    4. Theil, Elizabeth C. “Iron homeostasis and nutritional iron deficiency.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 141,4 (2011): 724S-728S. doi:10.3945/jn.110.127639
    5. Giacomo Voltan, et al. “Vitamin D: An Overview of Gene Regulation, Ranging from Metabolism to Genomic Effects.” Genes, vol. 14, no. 9, 25 Aug. 2023, pp. 1691–1691,
    6. Chilton, Floyd H., et al. “Interpreting Clinical Trials with Omega-3 Supplements in the Context of Ancestry and FADS Genetic Variation.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 8, 8 Feb. 2022,
    7. Sergeant, Susan, et al. Impact of FADS Gene Variation and Dietary Fatty Acid Exposure on Biochemical and Anthropomorphic Phenotypes in a Hispanic/Latino Cohort. Vol. 10, 5 May 2023,
    8. Hills, Ronald D Jr et al. “Gut Microbiome: Profound Implications for Diet and Disease.” Nutrients vol. 11,7 1613. 16 Jul. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11071613
    9. Afzaal, Muhammad, et al. “Human Gut Microbiota in Health and Disease: Unveiling the Relationship.” Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 13, 26 Sept. 2022,

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